Yellow card refSports betting is reliant on punters believing that the events they are gambling on are genuine contests, in which all competitors are aiming to win. If results were already pre-determined, then the appeal of gambling quickly fades as no longer is a punter’s knowledge of the teams or players involved of any real relevance. The result being rigged does not mean it is impossible to win money of course, but it does mean that it becomes a complete lottery with absolutely no skill involved. Fair and honest competition is vital for both the integrity of the sport and for betting on it.

The process of rigging events, also known as match-fixing, does not only pose harm to sporting integrity but it can cost bookies and punters a lot of money. Bookmakers, or people betting on exchanges, can lose substantial amounts when a match is fixed because some gamblers effectively know the end result in advance. How much is fixing, cheating and rigging, call it what you will, something you need to worry about though? Well, as we will explore, this partly depends on the sports and markets you are betting on but for most gamblers, it is unlikely to have any real impact on your overall profit or (more likely!) loss.

What Is Match-Fixing?

Match fixing is an illegal activity in which one, or several players and/or officials attempt to dishonestly manipulate the outcome of a match, game or contest. In doing so, they will aim to achieve a pre-determined outcome, with this basically being anything they can bet on. It does not need to be as major as throwing the entire game, although it might be, and it can be much more subtle so not to arouse as much suspicion. Football, with its huge range of additional markets, has often been a target as a result. A player might be, for instance, told to collect an early booking as yellow card betting is something that is widely available.

Sometimes, the fix will be a sure thing. Any player can get themselves a yellow card if that is their intention because there is really nothing to deny them other than being dropped to the bench. Other attempted fixes carry a little more risk. You could ask a referee to award a team a penalty but if they do not get inside the box this becomes rather tricky. Similarly, other fixes have required a certain number of goals to be scored, but this is only possible if there are a sufficient amount of shots on target and if often hard to fix without having multiple players, possibly from both sides, on board.

Srbjan Obradovic

A referee who is in on the act, desperately needing goals, could always start awarding extremely soft penalties but in doing so they are taking a major risk of getting caught. Serbian ref Srbjan Obradovic found this out himself, after giving away a penalty for virtually nothing with 13 minutes left on the clock in a game between Spartak Subotica and Radnicki Nis. His blatant attempt to award to present Subotica with a great scoring opportunity eventually landed him a 15-month prison sentence.

You might be wondering why any player or official would agree to fix the match, especially as sometimes it reflects badly on them. Certainly, in normal circumstances, no goalkeeper would want to have to let in a weak shot, or any referee give a yellow card for an offence not worthy. Money can be a persuasive motivator though and both players and officials are well compensated for fixing matched. Although money is often involved in such deals, sometimes they can be accompanied by intimidation. Lots of criminal gangs deal in fixing matches and they can threaten players or officials into action, especially if they are owed a favour.

Who Gets Involved with Match Fixing?

Indeed, contrary to popular belief, those trying to bribe players or officials do not normally simply lay their cash on the table. According to experts on the subject, those targeted for fixing are often groomed over an extended period. Sportradar (of which more later) note that “Fixers usually groom players and officials. They take time, do them favours and entertain them. Then they’ll call in the favours.” In a scenario most of us are only used to seeing on TV, once someone agrees to such an illegal act, they then become beholden to the gangs and refusing further fixes becomes almost impossible.

In addition, the sheer number of sporting fixtures that takes place means that only a tiny percentage of participants need to be open to the idea. If 99% of participants refuse to fix the match, it does not matter because 1% is still more than enough to work with. Sadly, there will always be takers too because the amount of money offered can be very large in relation to what their usual pay is. You will struggle to find a Premier League footballer on £100k a week willing to jeopardise their career for the sake of an extra £10k but for someone earning £500 per appearance, they might well deem it worth the risk.

Which Sports Have a Match Fixing Problem?

Arthur Ashe US Open Stadium
Ffooter / Bigstockphoto.com

In theory at least, no sport is completely immune to match fixing but some have far more proven incidents and allegations than others. Any sport with multiple teams/players/animals competing does not make for prime fixing territory because it would often require too many people to be in on it. If, for instance, you wanted to rig the outcome of a horse race, you would really need every jockey to be in on it. You cannot simply go up to one jockey and say “we’ll pay you £5,000 to finish third” because it might be that their horse is not fast enough for this.

Horse Racing: Fixing No Longer Common

In the horse racing example, the only thing you could tell the jockey to do is not to win, but laying a horse to win does not usually provide much in the way of returns. It would therefore be a lot of effort for not a lot back. The closest thing to ‘match fixing’ you will find in horse racing is a jockey not giving 100% so that a horse looks worse than they are, thus increasing their odds for their next race. How often this happens is a little hard to say but it largely seems to be an out-dated practice.

Motor Racing, Running or Snow/Water Sports: Fixing Not Common

On the same basis as provided above, you can also rule out match fixing being a significant issue in almost all motor racing, running events, plus many snow/water sports. The key is always having full, or highly significant control over an outcome that can be bet on.

Football: Fixing Common

For this, football is a popular choice and it is estimated that one in ten players will be approached to fix a game at some point during their career. Europol believe the actual number of football games fixed is less than 1% but even 0.1% would still mean a large number of actual matches given how many there are across the various leagues around the world.

Tennis: Fixing Common

Tennis is another sport that due to the volume of fixtures and easily manipulated markets makes it a big target for match fixers. It has been targeted for so long in fact that the Tennis Integrity Unit (now the International Tennis Integrity Agency) had to be established in 2008 to help counter the problem. Since its foundation, many bans have been issued to players found guilty of manipulating matches. Despite their efforts, it is hard to see the problem being eradicated given how little money some players are being paid. Whilst the multi-millionaires at the top of the sport attract all the attention, they are merely the tip of the iceberg and many pros struggle to make a reasonable living.

As reported by Reuters, an ITF-commissioned report found only 600 of almost 14,000 players competing in ITF competitions made enough money to cover their costs. When there is such a giant pool of cash-strapped players to choose from, it is hardly a surprise some will be receptive to match-fixing offers. Fixers often look abroad for this very reason as in many developing nations, even more elite sports personnel are not paid overly generously.

Esports: Fixing Becoming Common

Overall, there are a large number of sports that have had proven instances of match-fixing, not just football and tennis, although these are two prime examples. Even when looking at more recent years (post-2010) the likes of badminton, basketball, boxing, cricket, darts, snooker, table tennis and volleyball have all seen players or officials banned, suspended or sacked for manipulating results, accepting bribes or otherwise assisting those attempting to fix outcomes. Perhaps a slightly more surprising addition to this list is Esports which has been rocked on several occasions by fixing scandals, despite its relative infancy.

Part of the appeal of Esports is that players can so easily lose rounds or entire matches just being a fraction slower than their opponents. It does not require any obvious blunders or lack of effort to end up defeat, meaning it can go largely unnoticed. Despite this, players, even those at the top of the game do occasionally get caught out. Lee Seung-Hyun, one of the best Starcraft 2 players of all time, was sentenced to 18 months in jail for throwing two matches.

As said, Esports is a new “sport” and it is also one that many older bureaucrats and administrators may not necessarily understand. This means that many of the more traditional bodies set up to counter fixing may find it hard to fully comprehend how and when fixing might take place, nor spot unusual betting patterns in quite the same way they can in more established sports. Unless something is done there is a danger that fixing may really harm the sport as it seeks to grow and become more mainstream. Esports has already developed something of an unwanted reputation and even if fixing is actually relatively uncommon, such a reputation can be hard to shake.

How Common is Match Fixing?

We have established that many sports, both team and individual based, have been the target of match fixers. While three or four incidents over the span of a decade may make the problem seem quite minor, remember that many instances go unnoticed. In some cases, compelling accusations are made but there is insufficient evidence to warrant a conviction. As a result, only a fraction of players and officials involved in fixing do end up ever getting formally punished for it.

Knowing just how big or small this fraction is, now that is the tricky part. Sportradar, a firm that uses statistical techniques to identify suspicious wagers, identified 1,006 contests that it thinks were most likely manipulated during 2015 and 2016, and 451 in the first eight months of 2017. The company, with its 1,900 employees, looked at around 280,000 sporting events across 17 sports. However, they will only ever escalate the case if they are 100% sure that foul play is occurring. Anything less than that and they will not pursue the matter, ultimately meaning many guilty parties may be getting away with fixing, partially in order to spare the innocent minority and also to make sure that when the authorities do act, they are able to secure a conviction.

Four in every 1,000 sporting fixtures raises a flag on Sportsradar’s system, although according to Ian Smith, the first integrity commission for Esports, he believes as many as one in 100 games are rigged in some way. Even if this is an overestimate, there is no denying that match fixing is a problem, but is it one that affects bookmakers and the players or teams involved rather than an average gambler?

How Does Match Fixing Affect Bets?

esports
fpphotobank / Bigstockphoto.com

Authorities are right to consider match fixing to be a serious issue that needs clamping down on but for many of us, it is not something that will impact our betting experience. One of the main reasons for this is that few elite level matches are fixed, and these are the ones most people bet on. Bribing players from the top football leagues who earn millions a year just isn’t viable. The same goes for the incredibly well remunerated stars of other popular betting sports like golf, tennis, US sports and cricket (though that is a sport that has traditionally had a big problem with fixing).

Second Tier Matches

Instead, fixers tend to look at “second tier” matches as the players/officials involved in this earn little enough that they can be persuaded to fix. At the same time, there is enough money staked on them that anyone in on the corruption can grab themselves a handsome profit.

Spot Fixing

Another key factor to bear in mind is that often fixes do not have any meaningful impact on the main betting markets, the ones where most recreational punters place their bets. Spot-fixing, rather than full on match-fixing is common, and this simply involves manipulating a specific aspect of the game. In cricket, this might mean bowling a no ball during your first over or in tennis it might be making a double fault in the second game. In such cases the result of the match is irrelevant to the arrangement so corrupted players will still be aiming to win just as normal.

Referee Involvement

Given that many of us bet on the ‘match result’ market, it means that even when fixing is involved, our wagers do necessarily suffer. The main type of fixing likely to impact your bets is when teams pay referees to be generally ‘favourable’ to them. This is what happened in the huge Serie A scandal, which implicated the likes of Juventus, AC Milan and Lazio. While many of their matches were not truly fair contests due to the bias of the officials, it only gave them a helping hand rather than guaranteeing they would not lose.

Additionally, when placing bets, many of us look at past results to help guide us. If a team was enjoying a good run of form (thanks to some corrupted refereeing) then this is information we would be aware of. In this sense, your betting choices account for the match fixing to an extent, despite you not being aware of it.

Betting on a Fixed Game Unknowingly

Should you happen to bet on a fixture that ends up being flagged as fixed, do not worry about getting in trouble with the bookies or indeed the authorities. There is nothing remotely suspicious, or illegal, about someone who unknowingly bets a small amount on the very occasional rigged match and the bulk on non-rigged matches. The systems are only going to raise the alarm on users who are winning an unreasonable amount of their bets, placing unusually large stakes on niche markets and outcomes, and are winning a considerable amount in the process.

Match Fixing Conclusion

As long as there is money to be made, some people will try and fix games. That is human nature, sadly, but thankfully, it has very little impact on most punters. Most fixing takes place on smaller leagues and events where players are more accessible and more cheaply “bought”. In addition, a lot of fixing tends to focus on more niche markets, especially when it does stray into the more mainstream leagues and matches.

Certain sports are more typically linked to fixing and over the years cricket has been one of these, though it has cleaned up its act more recently. Cricket is now more lucrative than ever before which has helped, whilst a major effort has been made to clean it up. Esports is a growing area of concern for many with the suspicion that a large number of matches are in some way rigged in a sport that is not yet fully understood by some regulatory bodies.

Overall though, whilst hundreds and possibly thousands of sporting events may be fixed globally each year, this still represents a small proportion of the millions of games and matches that take place. Technology may help criminals but it also helps police and bookies, and by spotting irregular betting patterns and sharing information, the authorities are becoming more and more adept at rooting out fixers and punishing those involved.